It was disappointing to read Will Alsop's disparaging remarks regarding planning and the concept of masterplanning as 'Big Architecture' in his recent column (AJ 19.4.01).
While I too have some problems with the term 'masterplanning', I am similarly uncomfortable with the Orwellian concept that 'Big Architecture' implies. It is not the size of your architecture, but what you do with it that counts.
As a planner and urban designer in local government, I see examples of 'Big Architecture' daily in my work. Some of the schemes arriving in our office contain design rationales which focus on buildings rather than the spaces they create, promote landmark buildings with little regard for what happens at street level, or have hazy visions of how the development would fit into the wider urban system.
Often buildings are designed to a static end state, rather than considering how they could be adapted to changing uses over time. 'Sustainable' buildings are set within acres of car parking and poorly located for public transport. The skills that architects acquire to design a building are not directly transferable to managing change in a complex piece of town or city, as Alsop suggests!
I accept Alsop's beefs about tendering processes for local authority contracts, which are far from perfect and not always design-led. The problem is, however, not 'the system' but the way in which groups and individual actors operate within it.
Greater urban design training is therefore necessary across all the built environment professions (but also at a corporate level in local government where many bid decisions are made) to improve the form and function, assessment and prioritization of design in development projects and decision-making.
At its best, architecture can indeed 'unlock elements of joy and beauty'. But poorly conceived 'Big Architecture', which focuses purely on buildings and set-piece statements, rather than place-making and concepts of good urban design, is in danger of devaluing the concept. Beautiful buildings do not necessarily make a good place.
Matthew James, Walthamstow, London